Boston Vignettes

My friend Susan just moved to Boston from the Left Coast and is gradually learning the ropes. She wrote these two vignettes about her first couple of days in the city—anyone planning on moving here should check these out. Having lived here for the past six years (and being born here), I’ve forgotten what it looks like to see our city with “new eyes”:

I went to get my car insurance. This took a long time. First, I got lost. Second, no one at the AAA office seemed to be in much of a rush, despite the fact that it was going on 4:30pm and they closed at 5pm. The insurance agent had the typical Boston pace of getting things done (other than driving) in which every act seems to require a kind of measured heaviness. It is as though official acts in Boston bear the weight of history and that history weighs heavily. When Mr. X saw that the car was a gift, he explained to me, in an offhand tone, that we were going to say that the car was a gift from my mother or my sister, not from my aunt, because did I see this gift form? Aunt is not one of the seven family member options. “So we say sistuh — yuh see?” Then he checked with his supervisor.

“Jean, this girl heuh, the car is a gift from her ant, so we should say muthuh or sistuh right?”

The woman spoke in rapidfire Bostonese. “Oh yeuh. Remember how much trouble we had with that udduh one? They won’t take it! It kept getting sent back. Say sistuh.”

He turned back to me at a measured pace. “Okay, we’ll say sistuh. I mean, as long as the age difference isn’t too much, it should be fine.”

Jean yelled from her desk: “Say muthuh! If you say muthuh, they NEVER question it! NEVER!”

He turned back to me. “Well, they don’t ceuh. It doesn’t matter.”

I was confused, as I listened to two insurance professionals loudly discuss how to violate insurance law. I mean, granted, Massachusetts seems to have an inordinate number of rules and regulations, but I assumed that was because people LIKED rules and regulations. This appears not to be the case.

I can’t remember whether this was to save me a substantial amount of money on sales tax (gifts are not supposed to be taxed) or a 25.00 filing fee, but it didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was discussing the rules at great length and then figuring out the best way around them.

I imagined being called up by some insurance commissioner who noticed the discrepancy between the Massachusetts form that said “Sister” and the California form that says “Aunt”. What would I say? That my aunt is like a sister to me? That my insurance agent told me to lie?

After talking to the realtor, I called my mom and had a distracted conversation while desperately trying to eat dinner at 7pm while also waiting for the bus. I took the 66 bus all the way to Roxbury Crossing and successfully managed to get off (it helped that the bus said loudly “Roxburry Crossing”. And that someone else had hit the yellow strip to stop the bus). As promised by, Roxburry Crossing is on the Orange Line (read: subway) to Forest Hills.

I decided I should get a “combo pass” — good for bus, subway, and commuter trains, and that this would help me feel calmer about Boston. Although it was still unclear to me whether work would pay for the pass or just let me pay with pre-tax dollars, I decided it was worth the 71.00 to be able to go anywhere I wanted to without the annoyance of constantly getting lost. So, I asked at the booth. The guy told me they didn’t sell them at Roxbury Crossing, they only sold them at Back Bay.

Then he complimented my necklace and we talked about it for a bit and he then refused to sell me a token, but told me to put .50 in the disabled/retired slot and go through. He asked me if I was going there now to buy a pass, and I said no, but once I reached the platform, I thought, “Why not?” I’d already eaten dinner and it had to get done, so why not do it? He wouldn’t have asked me if the place wasn’t open, right?

This turned out to be very wrong indeed. He probably asked me because he knew, along with everyone else in Boston, that monthly passes are only sold on the first 10 days of the month. After the 10th, no one can buy a monthly pass, at any price. All monthly passes are returned to MBTA and are no longer in circulation. Also, you cannot buy an annual pass, or have a pass automatically sent to you each month. No, no, no — each month you must buy a pass within the first 10 days of the month.

Boston is a major American city, by the way, just in case you were wondering.

The monthly pass rule was explained to me at the Back Bay station commuter rail window after I had been bounced around twice. I just looked at the man in disbelief as I tried to hear him over the very loud loudspeakers echoing through Back Bay at 9pm at night.

Susan: But WHY can’t I buy a pass for September? I’m willing to pay for the whole month!

Man at Booth: We return them all, like I told you. Honey, I’d GIVE you a pass, but I don’t have one.

Susan: But WHY would they DO that? Are they afraid that too many people will ride the subway? Are there a limited number of seats?

Man at Booth:

Susan: Is there ANY KIND of a pass I could buy?

Man at Booth: Well, they have this weekly pass.

Susan: Okay, great! I’ll take one.

Man at Booth: But we don’t sell them here. Here.

Susan: Okay. Thank you very much.

I look at the paper about the weekly pass. It gives the hours they are sold. It informs me that passes for the current week are sold on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday, I can buy passes for the coming week, but no longer for the current week. The weekly pass is only sold at two stations — the two stations furtherest away on the Red Line (ie, nowhere near where I ever need to go).

I throw the piece of paper away, give up, and take the Orange Line back to Forest Hills, where at least I know how to get home, and where Adam and Rachele can very patiently listen to me rant about Boston.


  1. Mick Jan 28

    People complain about this all the time … but U can buy passes online:

    Or get them via the post:
    Or if you pay for a whole year, they only charge for 11 months:
    “Get 12 passes for the price of 11.”

  2. Kevin McCarty Jan 28

    My wife has encountered a similar situation in Philadelphia. She commutes on NJ Transit and SEPTA, and there is a special “Pass Buy [sic] Mail” program – – that gives her a monthly pass valid on both rail systems. To buy the pass, you have to call a (NON-toll free) number, leave a message with your name and address, wait for them to mail you an application, and then mail it back with payment, but only during the first 15 days of the month! Half of the train conductors tell her it’s the first time they’ve ever seen the pass. Completely bizarre, but it does save us a huge amount on train fare.

  3. shanna Jan 28

    Actually, monthly passes are sold in-person for the last four and first four business days of each month (at least according to my experience, and the MBTA web site). I fail to see how that could ever get you to the tenth of the month, even with a three-day weekend early on (like this month). Many of the locations where you can buy a pass are inside stations (like Government Center) where you have to pay to get there, and are only open during work hours…y’know, when most of the people who need the passes can’t go and purchase them.

    You can buy monthly passes online only until the 22nd of the previous month.

  4. Jeff Jan 28

    ah, the wonders of the Boston T system. After a while you just shrug your shoulders and go “it’s the T,” and carry on with whatever else you were doing.

  5. Anon Jan 28

    You can buy a pass any day of the month (I believe) at the check-cashing store at the corner of Mass Ave and Tremont in the South End.

  6. Ari Pollak Jan 28

    I hear about this constantly, especially from people who never stop comparing Boston to New York.

  7. Xuli Jan 28

    Hey, funny thing; I’m a lifelong Bostonian and this still causes me no shortage of incredulity. So, for combo passes, it’s cheaper to buy the weekly pass (16.50×4 vs $71) and you can get them at Government Center (but they always run out, and apparently never plan for it) so you can go to Haymarket and get one there, on the Orange Line (but only at the Green line entrance.) I am NOT making this up. God Speed!

  8. Mick Jan 28

    And Marlborough Market at the corner of Mass Ave and Marlborough St. in Boston sell T pass too

  9. Zack Cerza Jan 28

    Truly, we live in a great city.

  10. Ian Jan 28

    Actually, the MBTA does have an annual pass program, but it’s not well-known (apparently even within the agency) andinformation about it is very hard to find. See for info.

Leave a Reply

(Markdown Syntax Permitted)